An Interview

Brad Shepik on his new quartet

This interview with Brad Shepik was conducted by email during December 2010.

Tony Reif: Can you tell us about how this new quartet came about? Had you played with Tom, Jorge or Mark in any other contexts? Had you been thinking about the guitar-vibes combination or was it Tom’s playing specifically that you connected with? And what was it about Jorge and Mark that led to them to becoming part of this band?

Brad Shepik: This group came together gradually over the course of about 6 months in 2009. I had a few gigs in early 2009 at different places in New York and decided to try out some new music I had written with different players. I think the first gig was going to be with trumpet and drums but the trumpet player had to cancel. He had recommended Mark Guiliana however so we did it as a trio with an alto player. I didn’t know Mark’s playing at all before we got together to rehearse – but afterwards I went right out and got a few records that he was on and went to hear him live a few times. He has an amazing touch on the drums and cymbals as well as an incredible groove and totally unique way of placing things. Mark has played almost all of the gigs I’ve done with this music. We also played trio with different tenor players a few times but I actually felt less free on the music without the bass. I sort had to play a certain way to make the music come off and work. I decided to try it with Jorge Roeder on bass who I’d met on a gig around that time. Jorge is from Lima, Peru and just has an amazing rhythmic feel and sense of harmony that really enhances this music. I’d also been wanting to play with Tom Beckham who’d I’d met playing in George Schuller’s band – we’ve been playing together about 5 years now. Tom’s got a unique touch on the vibes and an amazing sense of harmony, he really gets inside of whatever he’s playing and pulls things out of the harmony that I don’t expect. I was really looking forward to how that group with Jorge, Tom and Mark might sound. In August of that year we finally did a gig as a quartet and I knew that was the group I wanted to record this music with.

TR: In your liner note you write that the tunes on the record were written at different times and not for this group. One of the things that really strikes me about this record is the finesse and elan of the playing, for example in the way everyone feels the grooves and the subtle rhythmic shifts that are going on. The arrangements and improvising allow for lots of interesting rhythmic/melodic counterpoint and creative interplay (for example the way you and Tom comp during each others’ solos), but as concentrated as the music often is, it doesn’t seem like anyone is over-elaborating or drawing attention away from the overall picture that the group is painting. What was the process of shaping the music and bringing it up to this level like?

BS: Everyone is just being themselves – I didn’t tell anyone anything to play. I really try to put all the information that you need to play the tune on the page. Then the rest is up to the players. Sometimes I feel that the tunes are just there to hang all of the back and forth on. The music I’ve been writing lately is less specialized than things I composed for groups like BABKAS and Pachora. We’re improvising just as freely in this group but with different materials and maybe in a more subtle way. For me the joy of playing music is really in the improvising – sometimes the more specialized your music is the more restrictive it is for people to be themselves in it.

TR: You’ve led or co-led a number of trios and at least one quintet (the Human Activity group, which I assume is still active), but I don’t think you’ve recorded a quartet before (though The Commuters was a quartet plus percussionist). Apart from the obvious differences in roles and texture from trio to quintet, not to mention that every group no matter what size has a different chemistry, is there something about the quartet format that you wanted to explore?

BS: I like the freedom of playing with another chordal instrument like vibes or piano, it’s also opens up possibilities for orchestration – another way to voice a melody. I like the texture of these instruments together but it’s also nice to play with a quartet because everyone has room to stretch out as a soloist and also sonically within the sound of their own instrument.

TR: As usual with you some of the pieces draw on sources outside jazz – west African guitar (“Transfer”), a kind of modified funk that reminds me a little of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” (“Mambo Terni”), some sort of combination perhaps of Celtic music and minimalism (“Across the Way,” “Marburg”) – but in the playing at least it’s all grist for the mill of one of your more straight-ahead if still not exactly mainstream jazz records. You’ve also mentioned that some people hear a 70s vibe in this music, though it made me think occasionally of Gary Burton’s jazz-rock quartet of the late 60s featuring Larry Coryell (but without the rock). I’m wondering, these days, what you find inspiring about jazz as such – its history and/or what it is today. And is there any music outside of jazz that you’ve gotten particularly interested in lately?

BS: I listen to everything I can get my hands on – CDs, gigs, things people post on the internet. I’m also still researching and transcribing Balkan music – I teach a survey class at NYU about it and lead an ensemble that plays Balkan pieces. In terms of jazz I don’t really have a strong division between history and what’s happening today – I like and listen to the old stuff as well as the new. In particular I love listening to guitar. The experience of listening to a recording of Django or Tal Farlow or Lonnie Johnson or Joe Pass or Cal Collins can hit me just as hard as listening to the great artists that are playing today. Also I think I hear a lot of the history of the earlier greats in the all of the really good players of today – they didn’t just fall out bed playing the way they do.

TR: Benoit Delbecq (in the interview for his recent releases on Songlines) talks about emotion in music this way: “I consider that if my music elicits an emotion I shouldn’t be the one choosing what emotion it is, I intend to leave that choice to the listener. Sometimes I’ve had feedback on this, and it can be very interesting, a famous French publisher told me once, ‘Your music gives me emotions I don’t usually have with music.’ I didn’t ask ‘What emotions?’ as it felt like it was not my role to know, it was too intimate a question.” Obviously your music is quite different from Benoit’s, it’s working with harmony and melody in more traditional ways and therefore might be thought to convey more easily specified emotions. You’ve said that the feeling you have about the title “Across the Way” is “people at great physical and emotional distance” and that it relates to “a search for something away from urban life, something larger.” At the same time, it seems to me, there’s a lot of joy in some of these tunes, which is probably as much an expression of the energy and relatedness and sheer fun of how the group plays together as something inherent in the compositions. How do you think about emotion in music? Do you find that your pieces evolve over time in what they convey to you, and that the players’ personalities contribute a lot to shaping the feelings that come across?

BS: I think I’ve tended to write less specialized music in part because it allows us as musicians as well as the audience to interpret the music based on the present situation. For myself that includes as much as I could potentially be aware of at that moment – my own emotional and physical state, the physical space we’re in, the acoustics, the sounds of the instruments, the sounds and presence of an audience. When the musicians are all doing that – it’s a pretty free situation no matter what we’re playing. I’m willing to trust that that is going to be interesting for someone to listen to. As far as putting a name on it, I’m less interested in that – isn’t that what music is for? The freedom to interpret the music spontaneously keeps things fresh for me as a player and composer. On the other hand music that has a strong, premeditated, fleshed-out program is something I also enjoy as a listener. It’s really two sides of the same coin. You could say that jazz/improvised music also has a program, only it’s being composed by the entire group on the spot in performance instead of beforehand by a single composer.